A Grand Experiment: Why Sports Belong in Higher Education

In January 1998 Penn State University head football coach Joe Paterno and his wife Sue gave the school $3.5 million to endow faculty positions, graduate fellowships, and undergraduate scholarships, mostly in the College of Liberal Arts. Gushed Penn State president Graham Spanier, “I’m the luckiest University president in the United States.” When retired historian Michael O’Brien published his Paterno biography that summer (No Ordinary Joe), he underscored the athletic-academic connection that the Nittany Lion coach called his “Grand Experiment”:

Pattee and Paterno Library
Pattee and Paterno Library, Penn State University – Creative Commons (Penn State TLT)

Under Joe’s long leadership… Penn State’s football program has never been accused of significant wrongdoing by any official investigative body. It has never been on probation and never been cited by the NCAA for major violation of its rules. Moreover, shortly after becoming head coach, Joe proclaimed his Grand Experiment, an effort to prove that academic standards and excellent football could coexist at the university….

As a result of his efforts and the efforts of other reformers to clean up big-time college athletics, public awareness of unethical practices has increased, college administrators have extended their vigilance, academic expectations have risen, and penalties have been stiffened.

We now know that in May of that same year, longtime Paterno assistant Jerry Sandusky was accused of assaulting an eleven year old boy in a shower in the football building, an event that (according to the Freeh Report) caused Penn State senior vice president Gary Schultz to ask in his notes, “Is this opening pandora’s box? Other children?” Yet he, Spanier, and other university leaders — including Paterno, who was informed of the criminal investigation against his assistant — “took no action to limit Sandusky’s access to Penn State facilities or took any measures to protect children on their campuses.” Sandusky retired the next year, but was given emeritus status and continued access to football facilities. I think most of us know at least some of the abuse and cover-up that took place from that point on

In a press conference yesterday morning, NCAA president Mark Emmert announced severe penalties levied against Penn State University in the wake of the Sandusky child sex abuse scandal: a fine roughly equivalent to the football program’s average annual revenue, the loss of scholarships, a four-year ban on postseason play, and the vacating of all wins from the season following the events of May 1998 to Paterno’s dismissal last year.

“Our goal is not to be just punitive,” explained Emmert (here’s the audio), “but to make sure the university establishes an athletic culture and daily mindset in which football will never again be placed ahead of educating, nurturing and protecting young people.”

Even if these penalties do lead to the kind of cultural change at Penn State that Emmert talked about at the press conference, I doubt very much that we’re about to see an agonizing reappraisal of priorities at other universities where powerful coaches, deep-pocketed boosters, rabid fan bases, quasi-professional “student-athletes,” and misguided administrators and trustees probably see little wrong with placing football ahead of education. (Or convince themselves that it serves as a tawdry means to a more noble end.)

Joe PaternoBut at a time when it would be all too easy for those of us on college faculties to point to the Penn State scandal as further (final?) evidence that Paterno’s “Grand Experiment” of fusing academic and athletic excellence is doomed to failure, perhaps it’s valuable for this particular college professor (who called for serious penalties against Penn State last November) to reaffirm his belief that sports, at their best, are integral to the project of higher education.

I’d love to hear what others think about this, but off the cuff…

Here are a few distinctively valuable contributions that I think sports make to higher education — in most cases, actually filling in gaps left by academics. (I should add that my observations are based almost entirely on my experiences teaching at Bethel University, which is a Division III school — and thus insulated, mostly, from the athletic scholarships, millions of dollars of TV and endorsement money, and other temptations that plague D1. It’s not perfect, but I’ve found that Bethel’s athletic department, more anonymously than Penn State, is committed to its own Grand Experiment.)

• First, the athletic field is the too-rare place on a college campus where students learn to work together. (To be, well, collegial.) In many classes, I assign group projects rather than individual papers, and while that approach sometime works well, more often it reveals how we’ve trained our young people to think that they can and should function independent of each other. (I was as guilty of this as anyone while a student. In my first month at the College of William and Mary, my first history professor taught us about the medieval roots of the collegium, and challenged us to mute our American individualism and cherish opportunities to learn in partnership with colleagues. It was great advice that I observed in the breach: I finished with one of the highest GPAs in my graduating class, yet undertook only one group project of any significant scope — and insisted on doing far more than my fair share because I thought it was the only way to ensure an A — and left college scarcely knowing any student apart from my roommate.) While the way that the media cover college sports feeds the perception that it’s dominated by stars, anyone who plays football, basketball, baseball, softball, hockey, volleyball, water polo, or any other team sport knows that no individual flourishes apart from the efforts of others.

• Second, athletics is home to another experience that’s too rare in higher education: failure. As we professors profess ourselves helpless to stop inflating grades and deem satisfactory what’s unsatisfactory, sporting competition — whether against other athletes or the limits of one’s body and preparation — teaches the brutally honest lesson that you will fail. Probably more so than other students, undergraduate athletes are cognizant of their own strengths and weaknesses (and, to get back to point one, why they then depend on others to succeed).

• But, third, athletes learn that they can and must work to enhance their skills. While researchers continue to find students doing precious little studying outside of class (on average, fifteen hours a week by seniors participating in the National Survey of Student Engagement, a figure even lower among business and social science majors), athletes (like musicians and artists and actors) are expected to put in hours and hours of practice and training on top of their studies. A colleague of mine often laments this imbalance: no football coach, she complains, would accept the level of effort that some of her students put into their coursework; and no football player would let their tackling, throwing, or blocking languish in the way that students neglect the development of reading, research, and writing, and then show up on Saturday afternoon and expect to flourish.

• Fourth, sports reminds us that the persons we seek to educate are not, in the words of philosopher Jamie Smith, what “Descartes described us to be: thinking things that are containers for ideas” (Desiring the Kingdom, p. 32). As a professor (and therefore prone to overvaluing intellectual formation) and as a Christian (adherent of a religion with a tradition of body-soul dualism long predating Descartes), I found myself chastened by Smith’s analysis:

In the rationalist picture, we are not only reduced to primarily thinking things; we are also seen as things whose bodies are nonessential (and rather regrettable) containers for our minds…. But what if our bodies are essential to our identities? Weren’t we created as embodied creatures? What if the core of our identity is located more in our body than in our mind?

At least in Desiring the Kingdom, I don’t recall (I don’t have it at hand — please correct me if I’m misremembering) Smith developing the role of sports in his model of Christian higher education except to warn against nationalistic liturgies that take place at sporting events. But it’s hard to imagine how a Christian university like my employer could aspire to form “whole and holy persons” (per one common motto in the last twenty years at Bethel) and not give some significant role to athletic programs (including club/recreation sports) and physical education in teaching students to nurture their heart and hands, not just their head.

Of course, every one of these distinctives can become dangerous if overamplified and detached from the other academic and co-curricular elements of a college education. Being “part of the team” tempts the individual conscience to silence itself, as we saw in the Sandusky scandal. The competition that provides teachable moments of failure can inspire a “winning’s not everything, it’s the only thing” competitiveness (see my September 2011 post on “muscular Christianity“). The need to practice athletic skills can consume and distract. And if our bodies are not just “containers for ideas,” they’re not much good without the ideas — or, as Smith would emphasize, the affective core that Christian higher education ought to focus on forming.

In light of the Penn State affair, one other distinctive is worth suggesting. In his comments yesterday, Dr. Emmert stressed that one of the fundamental principles of the NCAA was “to insist that athletic programs provide positive moral models for our students.”

It used to be a common assumption in higher education that teachers ought to serve as moral exemplars for students over whom they exercised something like parental responsibility. It’s the rare Western academic in the 21st century who believes this to be a central part of their calling. Yet we continue to expect it of coaches, writing paeans to them when they seem to rise to the challenge and tearing down their statues when we belatedly recognize their failures to do so.

O'Brien, No Ordinary JoeSo it would be easy to change a few words from an earlier paragraph in the introduction to the O’Brien biography of Paterno, and conclude that the:

The acclaim reprobation for Joe Paterno has stemmed largely from the contrast between the high academic and moral standards he has tried to exemplify and the shameless conduct that often embarrasses embarrassed and dishonors dishonored the college sport he cherishes cherished….

But I wonder how many of us professors would be willing to exemplify high academic and moral standards in the first place. If we say Yes, I hope it’s not because we assume that what happened with Sandusky could never have happened in our departments under our watches. And if No, I wonder whom we would suggest should provide such standards for college students.

What do you think? Is sports integral to higher education? Why or why not? Should professors and/or coaches serve as moral models for students?

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